The History Behind Fallout (1997)

In the late 1980’s Interplay was a brand new entrant into the publishing and developing space. Their critically and commercially acclaimed, The Bard’s Tale, series had launched them into the stratosphere of the then emerging PC gaming community. But what would define them would not be a fantasy epic but something much more dark. In 1988 the team would release Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic RPG that was revolutionary for its time. Introducing one of the very first persistent worlds in gaming, Wasteland was a cut above of other role-playing games. Taking place in a derelict 2087 after the collapse of society following a global nuclear war, players were charged with being a member of the Desert Rangers, a remnant of the army in the southwestern United States, and investigating a series of disturbances in nearby areas. While video games of the era took a mostly light fluffy approach to storytelling, Wasteland went down a darker route. Choices were no longer a simple black and white and were evidently various shades of gray. You could make a choice that haunts your forever and you’ll never be able to change it back. Like games of its time, graphics were simple at best, but that’s all they needed to be. The story and the way you play it was paramount

The games mechanics, on the other hand, were based directly on those used in the tabletop role-playing games Tunnels and Trolls and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, created by Wasteland designers Ken St. Andre and Michael Stackpole. Characters in Wasteland consequently have various stats such as strength, intelligence, and luck among others that allow them to use different skills and weapons. Experience is gained through battle and through use of skills. The game would generally let players advance with a variety of tactics: to get through a locked gate, the characters could use their picklock skill, their climb skill, or their strength attribute. There were many ways to play Wasteland, not just one. One of the other features of this game was the inclusion of a printed collection of paragraphs, which the game would instruct the player to read at the appropriate times. These paragraphs described all manner of things and added to the overall texture of the game and were built as a stopgap because programming space was at a premium. The paragraph books also served as a rudimentary form of copyright protection, as someone playing a copied version of the game would miss out on much of the story as well as clues necessary to progress. The ideas introduced here would rattle the gaming industry for year to come and since it was financially successful a sequel, of course, was on its way.

Releasing in 1990, Fountain of Dreams was branded as the technical sequel to Wasteland but was nothing of the sort. Created internally by EA itself, Tim Cain and the team at Interplay were not involved in any way shape or form. Fountain of Dreams was the beginning of a darker trend at EA of eschewing its subsidiary developers and creating mediocre sequels to their properties in house. A smaller game, taking place in a post-nuclear Florida, Fountain of Dreams included some of what Wasteland had created but to a very small degree. The press and fans alike instead preferred to reject its existence and hope for a true sequel to the masterpiece. But that wouldn’t come for a long time indeed.

Unfortunately for Interplay, the rights to Wasteland stayed firmly in EA’s grasp due to the fact that Interplay had recently released a 10th Anniversary pack containing the game through EA. As Interplay was entering the publisher domain, they didn’t need competition from an old employee. Seeing this, the team at Interplay, led by one Tim Cain, decided to take a different approach. Taking their ideas and knowledge of the old world they created, he lead the charge on this effort. Well where to start? First was the inspiration. The team at Interplay looked towards one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games, GURPS. A post-apocalyptic game in its own right, the series seemed like a perfect fit for the team’s vision so they soon contacted Steve Jackson Games for the rights to the adaptation. Initially there was a lot of skepticism coming from Steve Jackson as Interplay approached him with an offer. According to Scott Campbell the Lead Designer on the project, Steve Jackson only responded once he was offered up-front license money.

The first draft for the game’s story was written down on a “night of many beers” but was never intended to be used and at this point, Interplay had still not decided what their first GURPS game would be about. To get the ball rolling, Tim Cain proposed the idea of huge fallout shelters called Vaults that would protect the public from a nuclear war. Lead Designer Scott Campbell himself claims that this one idea was what started the creative process for the whole thing. In lieu of this they gave their new creative endeavor the affectionately named title of Vault 13: A GURPS Post-Nuclear Adventure.

Before they could start, however, Tim Cain had already laid the groundwork. Starting in 1994, he built the entire games engine from scratch, a feat that seemed nigh impossible. With no money and no resources, Cain was able to create it in six months astonishing the collectives at Interplay. With the right man on the job, the company let him assemble a team of 30 people to create the game in the next three years. Over this time the game was nearly cancelled outright after Interplay acquired licenses to new tabletop games and was almost changed into a real time mmorpg like the classic Ultima Online. But Cain was steadfast in his conviction toward the product and was successful in keeping his vision alive.

But where did it start? First they laid down a few simple rules. Rule #1: Multiple Decisions. We will always allow for multiple solutions to any obstacle. Rule #2: No Useless Skills. The skills we allow you to take will have meaning in the game. Rule #3: Dark humor was good. Slapstick was not. Rule #4: Let the player play how he wants to play. Rule #5: Your actions have repercussions. These five rules laid the groundwork for the entire game. It was supposed to be no holds barred. Anything would be allowed, even the killing of children. This was early in 1995, and even saying the word “ass” was illegal from public broadcasting. Interplay wanted to push the limits of the gaming genre and the populace itself to its absolute and outer limits. Because of these changes the title was also appropriately named Fallout: A GURPS Post-Nuclear Adventure, to reflect the darker storytelling. But someone, of course, was bound to disagree with their way of thinking

In early 1997, in the midst of Fallout’s development, Steve Jackson Games and Interplay suddenly terminated their deal. Apparently, Steve Jackson Games was satisfied with everything but the soon to be iconic Vault Boy pictures in the character screen and the execution scene in the introduction were just too much for them to handle As the split between Fallout and GURPS became imminent, Steve Jackson remarked “The GURPS implementation they’ve created is ‘worth’ saving.” Taking this to heart, and at the last minute too the title was changed to Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game and the GURPS system was replaced with the newly designed SPECIAL character system, just two weeks before release.

And it was just as revolutionary as its predecessor. Taking place 84 years in 2161 after a nuclear war between China and the United States has decimated the human race, Fallout tasks you as a Vault Dweller from Vault 13 to find a new water chip out in the derelict wasteland as the one responsible for water recycling and pumping machinery, has broken. Giving you the now iconic Pip-Boy 2000 and some meager equipment, the player is thrust out into the remains of California to find their salvation. Along the way you encounter raiders, mutant monstrosities, and government conspiracies from a time gone by. All the while the game has a unsettlingly cheery 1950’s backdrop with the cultural values of then seeming to clash with the ones of today. The ideology of the 50’s and things like the nuclear family and the threat of communism permeate the series, creating a sort of uniqueness to it.

More interestingly enough, the game was also one of the first to include a character creation system, an innovative idea for the time. This is where the old GURPS system came into play. Where GURPS was supposed to define the characters strength’s and weaknesses, the SPECIAL system picked it up instead. Defining the characters various stats, it allowed the player to create whomever they wanted from a bumbling barbarian to an intelligent scientist.

Unlike Wasteland’s text based and two-dimensional world, Fallout was played out on a pseudo-isometric 2.5 dimensional plane. Exploration was key here. Even though there was the timed mission of getting the water chip back in 400 days, players were still encouraged to wander off the beaten path and interact with the local inhabitants. Just like in real life, the people have their own inherent problems, which the player may choose to solve in order to acquire karma and experience points. Where Fallout deviates from most role-playing video games is that it often allows for these problems to be tackled in various ways, often choosing solutions that are unconventional or even contrary to the original task at hand. These actions may prove to be minor ones but some may change the in game world forever.

But just like in Wasteland, players had to fend off mutants and their fellow man alike. Instead of a text based combat system, Interplay went with a strategy role-playing game approach. As it is turned based, combat uses an action point system wherein, each turn, multiple actions may be performed until all points in the pool have been expended. Different actions consume different numbers of points so players would have choose their targets wisely. While this would have made for an ordinary RPG what really spiced it up were the perks. Perks were special elements of the level-up system. Every three levels a perk is granted of the players choosing. They can grant special effects such as letting the character have more actions per turn or make them more of a smooth talker. The various stats came into play too with your decision affecting whether you can run around beating people with a baseball bat or shooting them in the head with a pistol.

With a unique setting all its own and gameplay and exploration that separated itself from the crowd, Fallout was a shoe win for Interplay. Releasing in 1997 to critical and commercial acclaim, Interplay’s latest title became a smash hit, selling by the truckloads and winning awards left and right. The hard work and dedication of the team and incredibly dedicated Tim Cain had poured their hearts and souls into this project and had come out on top. Fallout had redefined what it meant to be in the post apocalypse with its zany characters and even wilder premise. But that’s what fans had grown to love about the Fallout franchise, and of course they wanted more of it. But could they hit gold once again or were there some hard times on the horizon?

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